Q&A: State Patrol, other local police agencies ask public to delay tweets during emergencies

When the public takes to social media during police actions, their up-to-the-minute posts can put officers and civilians in danger, local law enforcement officials say.

That’s why authorities in a new campaign are asking the public to “Tweet Smart,” which they define as tweeting later.

Delaying posts on Twitter and other social media sites until after a suspect has been caught can keep the criminal from getting away, and keep officers and the public safe, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said.

Batiste and other local agency heads encourage people to take photos of officers on the job when it’s safe to do so. They said that showcases officers’ work and sometimes can help later in investigations.

But they don’t want photos posted during an emergency.

In addition to the State Patrol, Lakewood, Federal Way, Bellevue, Des Moines and Seattle police are part of the effort, along with the King and Kitsap County sheriff’s offices.

Batiste explained the concern is that, sooner or later, authorities will be dealing with a criminal who is monitoring social media, and will use information the public posts, such as where officers are searching, to his or her advantage.

Q: What are you trying to accomplish with this campaign?

A: Our intent is to educate the public as well as continually educate ourselves about the advantages and potential disadvantages of social media.

If it’s something sensitive that could endanger either a victim or the officers, we’re very open to having communications take place between the public and law enforcement. But we don’t want that information broadcast to the public until it’s safe to do so.

The suspect could have access to social media just like everyone else, which could endanger the person we’re trying to help. We want to avoid that. We want to have a conversation now about that, rather than waiting until a crisis occurs.

Q: What are some examples of incidents in which social media endangered law enforcement?

A: If Maurice (Clemmons, who shot and killed four Lakewood police officers in 2009) had been monitoring social media sites himself, he could have laid in wait for the officers (searching for him after the shooting) to ambush them.

If the person we don’t want to have information as to our whereabouts has that information, that obviously poses a danger to everyone.

Social media is still a new phenomenon to all of us to some degree. It’s a great tool, we just want to ensure that in our use of it we don’t place others in harm’s way.

New Brunswick (manhunt after a gunman killed three Canadian mounties in June) is the most recent one that comes to mind.

That situation went on for hours within a community, and there was a lot of social media exchanges taking place when officers were trying to apprehend a very, very dangerous individual. The officers’ locations were being given away. That isn’t helpful. That creates a dangerous situation for the officers.

Q: With traditional media sources, law enforcement agencies are generally very clear about when posting information could put officers or the public in danger. With the public starting to distribute more of this information, is this new campaign a way to share those guidelines with all citizens?

A: I very much see it that way. There’s a time and a place for everything.

We’re not discouraging, we’re just simply saying: “Think about it.” If you were the one on the other end of the situation, if you were a hostage or you were placed in harm’s way, you wouldn’t want certain types of communication occurring.

Q: In an age when people are glued to smartphones and real-time social media, do you see the public actually complying with this?

I do. For the most part, people are very responsible and they just simply need to understand what our concerns are. And then they will be courteous in trying to comply with our wishes. But the conversation has to take place.

Q: If the public doesn’t comply, what’s the next step? Do you see a point at which you’d turn to the Legislature for a change in law?

I don’t think it will be necessary. Once we educate the public, I’m hopeful we’ll get the compliance we’re seeking, rather than having to seek a change in state law.

Q: What would you say to people who might have First Amendment concerns about this request?

A: I don’t want to hamstring people’s ability to communicate with one another or us. We just want to channel it in a proper fashion. People are more than willing to help, and I think this is another means by which they’ll be able to help.

Q: When can the public safely post about an incident? When the suspect is apprehended?

A: Yes, and we’ll say otherwise if it isn’t. They (the public) need to stay tuned to media sources to know when that situation has been brought under control, and the suspect or suspects have been brought into custody.